Alchemy of the Simple Milanesa

One of the aspects I most enjoy about eating in Argentina is the simplicity – of the choices, of the variations, of the constant recurring themes.

The same ingredients – and often the same dishes – are served over and over again all over the country. Besides a few local specialties (locro vs lamb, por ejemplo), a typical menu in Cafayate really looks a whole lot like a menu in El Calafate. There’s beef (of course), there are fresh tomatoes, garlic, parsley, some bread – food that goes well with red wine. Nothing fancy, nothing complex, rien de nouveau.

This is food that pleases the most wealthy and the most deprived, the city folks and the country folks. It’s what Argentines have always enjoyed. Argentines today, especially those in the campo, cook very similarly to how their mothers and grandmothers did. It’s thoroughly unprentious.

There’s no trendiness, no urge to provoke, to surprise or to push people beyond their comfort zones. People here know what kind of food they like to eat and they stick to it.

For example, milanesas with papas fritas are eaten, I’d reckon, by about five million Argentines a day. It’s the go-to lunch, always a popular plato del dia. There’s hardly ever any ground-breaking innovation to the milanesa. It’s the same dish – very thin beef strips pounded flat then breaded with parsely and garlic, and baked or fried. Served with a slice of lemon and french fries, it’s what you expect it to be. Simple and delicious.

People aren’t bored by this. They see it as both comforting (reassuring) and a challenge – the only goal is to make the best version of this staple recipe you possibly can. If it’s good, everybody will love it. If it’s not good, well, you’re in big trouble.

For the sake of variation, you could add a topping of bubbling tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese (milanesa a la napolitana) or a fried egg and a slice of ham. Or you could use tripe, fish or chicken instead of beef.

My favourite, saved for special occasions and ordered only when prepared by an expert, are sweetbread milanesas – so crispy on the outside and so tender inside…I drift away….. In fact one of the most unforgettable dishes of the past ten years (during which I’ve eaten in the best restaurants in the country) was at the spectacular and swanky La Bourgogne in Mendoza, where Fede Zeigler brought us crispy breaded mollejas (sweetbreads) with a simple aioli dip. They truly melted in my mouth (paired with the always bang-on Vistalba Corte B).

Vegetarians can opt for eggplant or zucchini milanesas, and just about every supermarket now sells milanesas de soya in the freezer aisle as well. So there’s a milanesa for everybody!
My historic kitchen tendency has been to take something old and try to reinvent it. It’s the North American in me, I guess. But for milanesas, I know there is no beating mi marido’s abuelita’s recipe. It’s worked for her for closing in on 100 years. I can do a pretty good job, but I’ll never match her’s. So the milanesa reminds me to just let it be and to bow in front of the proven.

How can you improve on something that’s already so perfect? After all, as Da Vinci said, simplicity is the true sophistication.

Sandwich de milanesaFor lunch in a hurry (a bit of a no-no), grab a sandwich de milanesa, served on a French baguette with tomatoes and lettuce. It makes a good road-trip meal or stick it in your backpack for a picnic if you’re heading out on a sailboat or up to the ski hill.

In Bariloche, the best milanesas are to be found at La Fonda del Tio, La Nueva Andinita or La Cruceta.

Stay tuned for (or feel free to contribute) my picks for the best milanesa in Mendoza, Puerto Madryn and El Calafate. Patience!

There’s great satisfaction in knowing just what you’re going to get. Perhaps it’s the predictability of the milanesa that makes it so popular in a country rife with instability and change.

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